California, Present Day
“You can’t just quit.”
Sarah Jane Tremont smiled at Melody, the woman who had
been both her friend and co-worker for the last six
years. She walked across the small office and grabbed
her diplomas and professional license off the wall.
“Actually, I can,” Sarah said, dropping the frames into
the cardboard box, not caring when they scraped
more care, she removed the remaining frame. She’d
picked up the old black and white photo last year, while
walking through an antiques mall. Just a simple
nine-by-seven print, it had stopped her in her tracks.
It was a picture of a woman sitting on a log, facing a
campfire. Her back was to the camera, her long skirt
touching the ground, her hair ribbons dancing in the
wind. The photographer had captured the sun just as it
slipped behind the mountains in the distance.
What had captured Sarah’s attention had been the man.
He stood off to the woman’s side, just a foot or so
back. He had one leg propped on a tree stump and his
lanky frame was bent over as he rested an elbow on his
thigh. He watched the woman as she watched the fire.
The photographer had chosen an angle that offered just a
hint of the man’s profile, just a peek at a strong
chin. He wore a cowboy hat and a long coat. Sarah
reached out and traced the man, letting her finger run
down the length of his body. A tingle started in the
tip of her finger and traveled across her hand, causing
the hair on her arm to rise.
She yanked her hand back and rubbed her still-tingling
fingers together. They felt almost hot. She raised her
hand toward her face and sniffed her fingers. She could
smell the campfire, the burning evergreens.
“What the heck are you doing?” Melody asked.
Dreaming. “Nothing,” Sarah denied. Before she
lost her nerve, she reached for the picture, careful to
touch just the frame. She lifted it off the wall and
gently laid it on top of the rest of her things.
She pulled the small nails out of their holes and
dropped them into the garbage. “Who knows?” Sarah said,
waving a hand toward the faded wall. “Maybe this will
be a good excuse for them to paint the office.”
“I don’t care about paint,” Melody said, her eyes
filling with tears. “I care about you. I don’t
understand why you have to leave.”
was easy. “Because I can’t stay,” she said. She stood
next to the door, her half-full box propped on her hip
and took one last look around the small, windowless
office. For the next months, as long as it took, she’d
do what she could for the Lopez family. When that was
over, she didn’t have a clue what she’d do. She only
knew that she couldn’t come back here.
kids and their families deserved better—certainly
more—but she had nothing else to give. She was empty.
brushed a tear off her cheek with an impatient swipe.
“For God’s sake, you’re a social worker, Sarah, not a
was too bad, because Rosa Lopez and her sweet
eight-year-old son had needed a miracle.
call you,” Sarah said, as she wrapped one arm around her
friend’s shoulder and pulled her close. “Maybe not
right away. But I will.”
Sarah left the four-story brick school, she heard the
click of the metal security door as it closed behind
her. Without looking back, she walked across the
deserted cement lot, stepping over the wide cracks. Two
basketball hoops, looking forlorn with their torn
netting and scratched poles, swayed in the brisk spring
wind. A slide, more rust than metal, stood off to one
the day, kids played in the front and staff parked in
the back two rows, separated from the busy street by a
wire fence that did little to protect the children from
the local drug dealers but caught every piece of garbage
that blew around the gray streets.
she got to her car, she threw her box and purse in the
trunk. As she eased her six-year old Toyota into
traffic and headed west, she saw Mr. Ramirez flip the
sign on his front door. During the day, he sold gas and
magazines to the teachers and candy and soda to the
children. At night, he pulled the grates over his
windows and got, as the saying went, the hell out of
this wasn’t Dodge. It was Salt Flats, the poorest
suburb of Los Angeles. Sixty percent of the population
earned under what the government defined as the poverty
level. In actuality, almost everybody in Salt Flats
lived in poverty. If it weren’t for the drug dealers
and the hookers, there would have been no real
Twenty-five minutes later, Sarah took her exit, just
like every other night, but at the last minute, she
turned left, heading for the ocean. There was no need
to go home, to her tiny apartment with its white walls
and beige carpet. There were no files to read, no case
reports to dictate, or telephone calls to return.
that was mostly true. An hour ago the harried school
secretary had jammed a note in her hand with a name and
a number she didn’t recognize. Sarah had slipped it in
her pocket. She supposed the least she could do was
call from the beach and let this person know that she
wasn’t going to be able to help.
was done helping.
needed time to breathe, to think, to find her center
again. She’d sit in the sun, jog in the park, maybe
even take up the piano again. She’d missed the music,
the sense of peace playing gave her.
she got to the beach, she pulled into the empty parking
lot, grateful that it was really too cool to be there.
She didn’t feel like sharing space with anybody else
tonight. Shifting in her seat, she kicked off her
shoes, then reached under her long silk skirt to yank
off her pantyhose. It had felt odd to have a dress on
at work. Her standard uniform was slacks and a blouse,
something that could survive milk carton missiles in the
cafeteria, gum on chairs, and vomit from nervous kids.
dressed up for the potluck, the going-away party that
Melody had insisted upon. The symbolism of the event
hadn’t been lost on her. She’d dressed like she might
for her own funeral, and the well-wishers had milled
around, staring at her, talking in low tones, not really
sure what to say. What was the right thing to say to
someone who was giving up?
she’d ever wanted was to make a difference. But it was
too late for that. She wasn’t going to get her wish.
opened her car door and at the last minute, slipped out
of her conservative suit jacket. She’d freeze in her
sleeveless blouse but she wanted to feel the harsh spray
of the cold water on her skin. She grabbed her cell
phone and put it and her keys in her pocket.
loved the beach, especially at night, when the tide
rolled in, each wave more aggressive than the last,
leaving jumbles of seaweed and all kinds of other
treasures in its swift retreat. She could spend hours
looking across the water, searching for the exact point
where the dark blue sea met the purple sky, and the two
became one, a perfect welcome mat for the moon.
Tonight’s sky had streaks of pink and lavender, and a
splash of red where the sun barely kissed the horizon as
it slipped away. It would be dark soon. She strolled
along the deserted beach, stopping every so often to
examine a pretty shell or an unusual piece of wood.
When she slipped one of the shells into her pocket, her
fingers brushed against the message slip. Before the
light faded completely, she needed to return the call.
dialed the first three numbers when she saw the
footprints. They started thirty feet in front of her.
She watched as the bubbles of the gurgling tide swept
over the prints, and she waited for them to disappear.
dialed the remaining four numbers and took another few
steps. A wave washed first against her calves, then
flowed over the footprints. Their perfection remained
phone rang three times before a man answered. “This is
Sarah Jane Tremont,” she said, as she put one bare foot
inside the first print. It stretched inches beyond her
toes. “I’m returning your call.”
you,” he said, then paused, like he was trying to
remember why he’d called. “Oh, yeah. Here’s the file.
I’m a customer service representative for Dynasty
Insurance. You had called a couple of weeks ago about a
policy that Rosa Lopez purchased last year.”
called about twenty times. She wondered which time he
was referring to. She took another step and thought she
might be crazy. It almost seemed like the footprint fit
not sure how to tell you this, but I think we made a
listened and walked and realized that this was the
miracle that Rosa Lopez had been waiting for. When the
call ended, she snapped her cell phone shut, stunned
from the turn of events.
took her a minute to realize that the footprints had
become a perfect fit.
sizzle started in her toes, jumped over the arch of her
foot, streaked up her leg, and lodged itself in the
middle of her chest. She felt as if she’d stuck a knife
in the toaster. She wanted to move, to fling herself
forward, to hurl herself back, to protect herself, but
jagged spear of lightning split the now-dark sky and
thunder roared. Wind, so strong it pushed her to her
knees, came from behind. Sand whirled around her,
biting into her skin. She squeeze her eyes shut and
cupped her hands over her ears. The ground shook,
sending her sprawling face down in the sand.
cell phone flew. “No,” she cried. She had to call Rosa
she heard it. The noise. A hundred times louder than
the thunder, a hundred times more frightening. She
opened her eyes. A wall of water swept across the
ocean, heading right towards her. Sarah screamed as the
first spray hit her face.
woke up flat on her back. Every bone in her body ached,
her head throbbed, her eyes felt glued shut, and her
tongue seemed too big for her mouth. She licked her dry
lips and tasted salt.
undoubtedly drowned. She was dead. Done. Finished.
The fat lady had sung.
wiggled her fingers and her toes. Everything moved.
She patted her arms, her cheeks. Everything felt pretty
solid. So much for all that stuff about ashes to ashes,
dust to dust.
pried one eye open, then the other. Rolling to her
side, she got to her knees, and then stood up. She felt
a little lightheaded, the way she did when she’d skipped
both breakfast and lunch.
moonlight, the trees, their branches full, cast long
shadows. She saw mountains in the distance. Stars,
brighter than she’d ever seen, sparkled in the sky.
Grass, a whole field of it, tall enough to reach her
waist, swayed in the soft breeze. It smelled sweet,
like spring flowers.
to be Heaven.
jumped when she heard a noise behind her. Whirling
around, she saw two yellow eyes, ground level, staring
at her. She screamed, the sound echoing in the quiet
night. The startled squirrel ran up the trunk of the
seeing the animal made her feel a little better. She’d
always hoped her fat old cat who’d died just last year,
had made it to Heaven. If a squirrel got in, Tiny was a
looked to her left, then to the right. A narrow dirt
road stretched as far as the eye could see in both
directions. Hoping for a bit of divine inspiration, she
looked up and studied the sky.
tried to pick out the brightest star. That had, after
all, worked out okay for the Wise Men. She patted the
pockets of her still-damp skirt. Fresh out of
frankincense or gold. Oh, well.
turned to the right and began walking down the dirt
road, wincing when she stepped on a sharp rock. She got
another hundred yards before a second rock sliced into
her other foot. She stood first on one foot, then the
other, probing the cuts with her fingers.
had she had her last tetanus booster?
laughed, feeling giddy. What did it matter?
squatted down, rubbed her hands across the grass,
attempting to wipe the blood off. She managed to smear
it up past both wrists. She resisted the urge to use
the edge of her skirt. It might have to last her
through eternity. Now she really regretted that she
hadn’t worn her practical slacks and blouse. “I hope
you’ve got some extra bathrobes, God.” She spoke
quietly as she continued down the path. “Some of those
white thick ones, the kind they have in expensive
took a few more steps. “I always figured Heaven would
have pizza and hot chocolate and red licorice.” Another
six steps. “Not that I’m complaining, God. I’m sure
there’s more than this.” She did not want the Big Guy
to think poorly of her. After all, she’d handled this
death thing pretty well so far. No sense letting Him
walked another ten minutes, each step a bit more painful
than the last. She had almost decided to give up and
let God or whoever come and find her, when she reached
the top of the hill and spied a log cabin, another
half-mile down the road. A wooden barn, three times as
big as the cabin, stood a hundred yards to the right.
hobbled as fast as her sore feet allowed, slowing when
she got close enough to see better. No porch light
beckoned. No sidewalk led up to the front door. Just
more dirt. “I’m assuming this is all a staging area,
God,” she whispered. “I’m going to walk through that
door and find Paradise. Eternal peace.”
the first time, she felt fear. What if she was doomed
to live an eternity of unending dirt roads and bloody
feet? The biggest fear of all hit her, almost taking
her breath away. What if this wasn’t Heaven? What if
it was something else? She didn’t want to say the
“Here’s the deal, God. I know I gave up. That doesn’t
make me a bad person. I know I could—”
dog’s angry bark interrupted her. That scared her. In
Heaven, all the dogs would be gentle Labradors. In the
other place, they’d be pit bulls.
wanted to run, but to where? Heart pounding, hands
clammy, she edged closer to the door. She raised her
hand to knock but before she got the chance, the door
swung open. A man—a big, terrifyingly menacing man with
a gun slung over one shoulder—stood there. He held a
lantern in one hand. The light played over his strong
features, his broad forehead, his straight nose and
extended his arm, raising the lantern to get a good look
at her. He didn’t say a word, he just glared at her,
his eyes filled with hostility. She opened her mouth
but no words came out. She wanted to run but her legs
refused to obey.
“That’s enough, Morton,” he said, turning his head
slightly. The barking stopped.
devil and his dog, Morton.
turned back toward her. He set the lantern down,
shrugged one powerful shoulder and lowered his gun,
placing it next to the door. Then he looked at her
again. “What the hell are you doing here?” he asked.
“I thought you said you were never coming back.”
barely kept her head from hitting the floor. She’d
dropped like a stone. But once he held her in his arms,
he didn’t have any notion of what to do with her. Then
he saw the blood on her hands and feet, and he knew he
had to help her.
Morton,” he said to the dog. “She’s hurt.”
big dog whined in response and ran nervous circles
around John’s legs. “Get out of the way,” he scolded
the dog, as he carried the woman to the bed in the far
corner of the room. With as much care as he could, he
placed her on top of the worn blanket, then took a step
back. She looked small and pale and so very still.
Reaching forward, he held his hand in front of her
lips. Delicate breaths warmed his fingers.
okay, boy,” he said, patting the dog’s head, knowing he
wasn’t reassuring the animal so much as himself. What
had brought this woman to his door in the middle of the
night wearing nothing but her shift? Trying to ignore
her barely covered breasts, her small waist, and the
sweet flare of her hips, he concentrated on her face.
looked thinner than he remembered. She’d cut her hair,
too. Now it just brushed her shoulders. He remembered
the hours she’d spent in front of the mirror, crimping
her long hair with the hot iron. Then she’d laid out
her powders and her paints and weighed down her face
with a layer of oil. Tonight, her skin, still pale,
looked bare. He ran a thumb across her cheek. Just
skin. He could see the faint shadow of freckles on her
nose. Somehow, it made her look younger. Innocent.
“Deceitful witch,” he muttered. This woman was no
innocent. She probably hadn’t been born innocent.
held the lantern above her head and moved it down the
length of her body, looking for injuries. When he got
to her feet and saw fresh blood oozing from both, he
quickly set the lantern down on the table next to the
bed. He walked across the room, grabbed a clean cloth
from the cupboard, and wet it with water from the
pitcher he kept on the table. He returned to the end of
the bed and picked up one foot. The warmth and softness
of her skin shocked him.
“Conniving gold-digger,” he reminded himself.
wiped first one foot, then the other. One of the cuts
worried him. Grabbing another clean cloth from the
cupboard, he doubled it over once, and then again.
Pressing the edges of the cut skin together, he wrapped
the cloth around her foot, tying it in a knot on top.
his third cloth, the last clean one he had, wet it, and
wiped off her hands. She sighed, a soft sweet sound.
He flicked his eyes to her face. Her pale pink lips
parted and he could see just the tip of her tongue.
“Manipulative, spoiled, rude,” he said, kneading his
forehead with his fingers. Damn, his head hurt. “Come
on,” he said. “You’re not the fainting type.” He put
his hand on her shoulder and shook her gently. She
yet another trip to his cupboards, he reached for his
vinegar bottle. After pouring a generous amount into a
cup, he brought it back to the bed and held it under her
nose. She sniffed, coughed, and turned her head to
avoid the smell.
girl,” he urged. “Now open your damn eyes or I swear,
I’ll dunk your head in a pail of this stuff.”
dark lashes fluttered against her pale skin. She opened
her eyes, startling him. He’d never noticed before just
how blue they were.
watched as she looked first at him, then from one corner
of the room to the other, then at Morton, who sat at the
end of the bed, growling. Her gaze settled back on
him. Big and round, her eyes filled her face. She
looked scared to death.
didn’t remember her ever looking scared. Belligerent.
Sullen. All that and more. But never scared.
“Sarah, you’re okay,” he assured her.
anything, she looked even more frightened.
“Did someone hurt you?” he
asked, struggling to get the words out. No woman
deserved to be mistreated. Not even this one.
shook her head.
me what happened,” he demanded.
cowered against the bed, causing the narrow strap of her
shift to slip a couple inches lower on her bare
shoulder. He worked hard to keep his eyes on her face.
mind,” he said. “We’ll talk about it later. Would you
like some water?”
way to get the cup, he opened the door for Morton. When
the dog didn’t look inclined to move, John whistled.
The dog whined one more time, gave Sarah a quick look,
and then left, but not before brushing his big body up
against John’s legs. John shut the door and walked over
to the shelf above his stove, picked up his extra cup,
and filled it with water from the pitcher. He went back
to the bed and held it out to her.
fingers met around the metal cup. His large tanned ones
seemed twice the size of her small white ones. He saw
the scar across the first joint of his ring finger, an
old reminder of Peter’s clumsiness with a fishing hook.
Peter. His brother. Younger than John by just a year.
The two of them had been inseparable. The only thing
that had ever come between them had been a woman. This
go of the cup. She caught it but not before a little
water sloshed over the edge. The water stain spread
across the pale blue of her shift. He backed up,
needing to put some distance between them.
might look soft and sweet, but this woman had killed his
she hadn’t pushed him down the silver mine shaft with
her own hands, but if not for her incessant wanting, her
need for things, her inability to ever be satisfied,
Peter wouldn’t have been compelled to take the risk that
had cost him his life.
was Cheyenne?” he asked. That’s where she’d been headed
six months ago, just three weeks after his brother’s
death. He’d come home, after working a backbreaking ten
hours clearing trees, and her bags had been packed.
mother, who had moved in after Peter’s funeral, had been
sitting at the table. Sarah stood by the window. She
hadn’t even bothered to say hello when he’d entered the
leaving,” she’d said. “I kept my promise. I stuck
around long enough to know I’m not with child. Proof
positive came today. Thank the sweet Lord.”
still remembered how cold her words had sounded. He’d
understood the sadness in his mother’s eyes. It wasn’t
Sarah’s leaving that pained her. She wouldn’t miss her
daughter-in-law. It was that she’d lost her last hope.
There’d be no grandchild to rock in her arms. No chance
to hold Peter’s child tight against her breast.
be on tomorrow’s stage,” Sarah had said. “I need you to
get my bags to town. Is the wagon fixed?”
nodded. It didn’t matter. He’d drag her damn cases on
his back, the full three miles, to get the evil out of
like my money,” she’d said, holding out her hand.
walked back to the barn, dug the money out of its hiding
place, and returned to his house. He’d thrown the
packet on the table. She’d picked it up, counted it,
and put it into her valise.
“Sarah, you don’t have to go,” his mother had said.
“You’re my son’s wife. There’s a place for you here.”
your son’s wife,” she’d responded. “Now I’m a rich
widow. I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.”
she had. Tonight of all nights. Had Peter lived, he’d
have been thirty-one today. “You’re not welcome here,”
John said. “I’m not as charitable as my mother.”
“Mother?” she whispered.
looked confused, almost forlorn.
“You’re on the next stage,” he said. “I’ll put you on
“Stage?” She took another small sip of water.
“You’re not my responsibility,” he said.
nodded, never taking her big blue eyes off him. “I
thought I was dead.”
stood up, grabbed his hat off the hook, and jammed it on
his head. “I couldn’t be so lucky,” he muttered, not
wanting to admit how her words shook him. He hated her,
sure. But he didn’t want her dead.
didn’t respond at all, just blinked her big eyes a
couple times. And then a tear slid down one pale cheek.
kind of man made a woman cry? He turned away, unwilling
to watch the results of his own surliness. He got to
the door before she spoke.
you for helping me,” she said, looking at her bandaged
didn’t want her gratitude. He wanted her gone. “Forget
it. Just get better so you can get the hell out of my